Survival of the Most Well Adapted

You will often hear the expression “survival of the fittest” attributed to Charles Darwin. Interestingly, that is not what he said. Darwin talked instead about the survival of the most well-adapted. It is an important distinction because what is adaptive and beneficial in some environments is a hindrance in others. Imagine a seal trying to survive on the African Savannah, or a lion trying to survive in the middle of the ocean.

As humans, we are incredibly adaptable creatures. As a species, we form societies from the Arctic to the desert, from the rainforest to high mountain valleys. In our society, people adapt to living in a huge range of situations, with different expectations and requirements for survival.

Our ability to survive and thrive in many environments means that we can (and do) adopt different patterns of behavior, styles of interacting, and ways of being in the world. For example, the clothing that is needed to thrive as a rockstar is different from the clothing needed to thrive as a school teacher which is in turn different from the clothing needed to work on a fishing boat off the coast of Maine. The attitudes and ways of relating that allow us to be successful are different in different environments as well.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are working in an intense, competitive, pressure-filled corporate environment, and thriving. You make decisions quickly, you are motivated by your bonus, you get promoted, you bring a strong analytical mind to problems, and you play the corporate game well. You have a set of skills, attributes, attitudes, and behaviors that all allow you to excel. You are climbing the corporate ladder.

Now imagine you are transported to a preschool, and your job is to take care of 4 year-olds. While some of the skills that served you well in the first environment might transfer (say, the ability to form relationships), other ways of approaching the world that were valued and beneficial suddenly become liabilities. Decisiveness might be helpful, but perhaps less important than the ability to talk about sharing the yellow Play-Doh. What is helpful and adaptive in one environment may be a hindrance and maladaptive in another.

When we go through changes and transitions in our lives, we often have to update what is helpful and adaptive, and what is a hindrance.. When we leave the house for college, when we start a new job, have children, when our children leave the house, we choose a partner, when we retire– any time there is a big change in our life, there’s a decent chance that previously helpful, adaptive behaviors or beliefs no longer serve us. My approach to life as a single, eligible bachelor might work fine as long as I remain a single bachelor, but probably would work poorly as a married man with children.

What has changed in your life? Are you in the same place you were a year ago? Three years ago. As you move into a new phase, has your approach changed as well? What things that used to serve you well no longer do?

-Dr. Justin